Randall Stevens is the founder of a Lexington-based company, ArchVision. Now, he’s rolling out a new endeavor called AVAIL, software designed to make life easier, more efficient, less costly, and even safer for architects, engineers, and construction contractors. He talked about it with Tom Martin.
Question: What is AVAIL? What does it do?
Answer: AVAIL solves what I call the loose content problems.
Most people deal with digital files on their computers all the time. You end up with data stored in different files and the way that most people around the world still try to manage that is inside folders. So, you can imagine, as you get massive amounts of information stored that way, it gets very difficult to find it. So we’ve been trying to solve that problem with AVAIL which is to organize and give you new ways to be able to get to this information much more efficiently.
Q: Most of us, when we drive or walk by a construction project have only a vague idea, at best, of all the coordination that has to go on to bring a building up out of the ground. Could you give us some idea of the spinning plates that have to be considered and synchronized?
A: They’re very complex projects. It starts at some sort of schematic design idea phase and then goes all the way through construction and then even past construction, you move into what’s called facilities management or FM.
So, really the life cycle of a building like what we’re seeing being constructed in downtown Lexington (City Center), we’re at the very tip of that. That building will probably be on the ground being managed for the next 50 to 100 years. So, there’s a really long life cycle of the information and everything it takes to manage it all through that process.
It usually starts in the architectural practice where somebody is doing the design and then, ultimately those designs get translated by somebody who has to figure out how to build it. And then, when you’re doing the construction part, it gets complicated. It’s about staging the materials and the supplies and the labor that’s on site. It’s really, really complex. I think most people would be amazed if they really saw behind the curtain and how complex all this is.
All that’s being compounded by everybody wanting it sooner, faster, cheaper. So, there’s a compression in how to get all these things done which means all the information needs to be not only accurate, but at your fingertips.
Q: The various disciplines that are involved in a project — the architect, the construction company, the engineers — have they been operating in silos? Has communication been less than what it could have been? And does AVAIL solve that?
A: Definitely very siloed. It’s also very fragmented. There are literally hundreds of thousands of firms around the world that are doing this kind of work on all these projects every day. And the handoff of information where there are multiple companies involved is very inefficient. There’s a lot of money pouring into trying to attack and solve these inefficiencies.
The world’s population is expected to double between now and 2050. So, when you start looking at the number of not only housing units, but places where people are going to work and play, it’s like we’re going to more than double the number of those that are on the planet today over a relatively short period of time. A lot of people are looking out over the next decade or two and say we can’t sustain the way we’ve been doing this. Moving forward, we have to get better at it, we have to get more efficient. So, I think what we’re doing with AVAIL is one piece of that puzzle.
Q: I’m still thinking of a construction site as an example with each of these parties arriving with its own interest and needs for information. The architect may be looking for one thing, the engineer for another, the construction company, yet another. Does your software enable them to interact? How do they do that? Are they given some sort of password access to all the files that are available?
A: Yes. With the personal computer in the mid to late 80’s, instead of drawing things on paper we began doing it digitally. It was usually drawn in 2D and still printed out and taken to the job site and people were flipping through paper drawings.
And what you really want to be able to do is to filter out everything that’s not related to what you want to see. So, you’re just concentrating on what you need to see to get your job done.
So, it’s like a big kit-of-parts. Ultimately, they want to grab kits-of-parts and pieces from over here and over there and assemble those into the next thing that we’re building. So, what we’re doing with AVAIL is helping them manage a lot of that information.
Q: Does the software lead to more creativity in design and how does it do that?
A: I think the promise with anything that makes you more efficient is that you free up more of your time to be creative. The ultimate goal is to get the mundane stuff to be as automated as possible so that we can free up human spirit and intellect to do more creative things over time.
Q: Do you envision other applications for AVAIL?
A: Yes, definitely. One of the challenges of being an entrepreneur is not to get too far ahead of yourself. You’re always imagining. What’s been fun about working on what’s become this application called AVAIL is we’re working on some really complex low-level problems about how we as humans deal with information and that’s not just this industry, of course, it’s across the board.
So, we’re having great success in the industry that we’re in for the foreseeable future. At some point, I’m sure we’ll decide if we want to splinter off and take the same technology and either do it ourselves or go find a partner that might be one of these other industries and take the kind of core of what we’re doing and apply it there.